A strengthening El Niño in the Pacific is set to wreak “weather chaos" in the United States next year, NASA climate scientists are warning.
The current El Niño, a weather pattern characterized by high sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean, is already growing into one of the strongest on record. NASA warned this week that its effects in the U.S. are expected to kick in early in 2016.
Officials haven’t nailed down the exact weather conditions El Niño will bring, but NASA compared this year to the last stout El Niño in 1997–98, a “wild ride” that brought mild weather and low snowfall to traditionally winterly areas of the country and severe rainstorms to the Southwest.
“In early 2015, atmospheric conditions changed, and El Niño steadily expanded in the central and eastern Pacific,” Josh Willis, a project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.
“Although the sea surface height signal in 1997 was more intense and peaked in November of that year, in 2015, the area of high sea levels is larger. This could mean we have not yet seen the peak of this El Niño."
NASA said El Niño could bring some relief to parched California, which is suffering through a years-long drought. Two past El Niños, NASA said, have delivered about twice the average seasonal rainfall in California, but NASA warned such a weather pattern could bring mudslides and flooding along with it.
“Reservoir levels have fallen to record or near-record lows, while groundwater tables have dropped dangerously in many areas,” JPL climatologist Bill Patzert said.
"Now we’re preparing to see the flip side of nature’s water cycle — the arrival of steady, heavy rains and snowfall."